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If a Body Meet a Body

“Forgot my ID.

“Again?” She blinked up at him, fresh towels piled around her.

“I’m a terrible person,” he said, flashing a lopsided smile and bowing his head in stage shame.  She laughed.

“No one with that smile can be all bad,” she replied.

A familiar coldness crawled over him as he felt her smile reach out, probing.

“What’s the name again?” she asked.

“Sera-Fick, Martin.”

She tapped at the computer.

“Sera - ?”

He hoisted his knapsack onto his shoulder. “Sera-hyphen-Fick. Surname’s a twofer.”

She beamed up at him, her fingers slowing on the key board as she lost her way a little under his gaze, his light brown eyes pale as old gold coins.  He waited for her to collect herself, the chill spreading through his arms and down his thighs even as he felt her warming to him.  “Sera-Fick,” he jogged. 

“Ah,” she jolted back to the computer.  “You’re all set.  And you’re not a terrible person, Martin Sera-Fick.” Her smile slid sideways, an invitation to play along.

Grazie,” he said, taking a towel.

“Oh, I’ve been going nuts trying to figure out what you are,” she said, eyes widening.  “You’re Italian?”

“I have no idea,” he answered honestly.

She laughed, then caught herself, realizing that maybe she shouldn’t.  She batted her eye lashes at him, but he was gone.

When Martin emerged in his workout clothes, Haseeb was already among the weights, a light sheen on his face and forearms.  His small paunch pudding-shaped under a t-shirt bearing the crest of their alma mater.  Haseeb spread his arms and glared pointedly at the clock on the wall.

“Dude.  What time do you call this? You get lost in the elevator?”

“First bench press, then I’ll tell you.”

“You warmed up?”

“Rack it, man.  I’m warm enough.”

They slid two plates onto each end of the barbell, then Haseeb reached for a clamp.

“One more,” Martin told him. 

Haseeb’s eyebrows wriggled. “You sure? That’s a lot more than last time.”  Martin slid another plate onto his end of the barbell.  He liked it when Haseeb disapproved of the weight.  

“You’re on your own here, Hercules.  You drop this, I won’t be able to catch it.”

Martin liked it even more when the weight was too heavy for Haseeb to spot.

“I’m late because I was scoping out a singles website,” Martin said, taking a seat on the bench and finding himself in the mirror.

“The one I sent you the link for?”

Hell, no,” said Martin.  “Something much better than a dating site. It’s the perfect birthday present to myself.” 

“Oh shit, that’s next month, right?”

It was the date he had been found at St. Martin’s church, and his adoptive family had always called it his birthday.

Martin watched an enormous body builder in powder-blue spandex take the bench next to him.  The monster began fly-pressing two enormous dumb bells, his eyes flicking hopefully over the mirror, searching for spectators.  He grunted and yawped, eyes popping with the strain, sweat glossing his leathery skin. 

Martin felt the edge of a mild nausea come over him at the obvious display, and he lay back, leaving his reflection.  He looked up at Haseeb’s belly pressed against the bar, a crease forming in the pudding. 

“You know, I don’t think you ever told me how you know it’s your birthday,” Haseeb mused down at him.

Martin filled his lungs and took hold of the barbell, then punched upwards to free it from the rack.  Heat filled his arms and chest, chasing out the aftertaste of the saccharine desk girl, and the powder-blue monster beside him.  The laden bar teetered. Martin’s elbows locked out as he fought for control, panic a small bud in his chest, ready to unfurl.  He sucked in more air and brought the bar down, down towards his heart, then slammed himself against it, willing it to yield.

******

“Psst. How’d it go last night?” Lana asked, peeking over the cubicle divider. She could have wheeled her chair around, but Lana liked whispering over the divider.  It felt more like intrigue.

“Not well,” Phoebe replied.  “It was, ah, not a good fit.”

“Again, huh? Was he too short?  I did worry about that.  There aren’t going to be too many guys out there who’re taller than you.”

“No, he was tall enough.  And really well intentioned, just terribly awkward.” She shrugged, reaching for her coffee. “No butterflies.”

“Not even moths?”

Lana made the same quip whenever Phoebe mentioned the butterflies.  Lana was a good friend, and had always been sweet, but Phoebe thought it a mean, awful joke. 

“He does some kind of crazy robot thing for a living, right?” Lana continued, balancing her coffee mug on top of the divider.

“Software that duplicates hand movements, I think.  He seemed very smart, but he just kept asking me if I was part Asian.  He was convinced my eyes meant I was Outer Mongolian.”

“Those big green peepers are going to scramble most guys’ brains the first time they see them, sweetheart.  What’d you tell him about where you’re from?”

“That his guess was as good as anyone’s. So then he asked about my parents, and then the adoption thing came out, and it just went south.  He looked this close to asking for a DNA swab.”

Lana strained on her toes for a better look.

“Poor thing,” she said.  All of the blind dates Lana had foisted on Phoebe had gone the same way.  Sweet, shallow, and unfulfilling.  Meals made of nothing but corn syrup and food coloring, vacuum sealed in plastic. 

“I think I’ve got the answer, though,” said Phoebe, a flush spreading through her belly as she pulled up the website.

“Answer to what?”

“What I want for my birthday.”   Phoebe’s chest filled with the promise of movement.

******

“That’s physically impossible,” Haseeb said, pinning a fish taco down with a fork and sawing at it with a butter knife.

“No, it’s not.”

“It’s been a while since college physics, Marty, but that is one hundred percent not physically possible.  You’d die.”

“I’ll be fine,” Martin said, dumping extra slices of chili onto his plate.

“Besides, it’s got to be illegal.”

“Why?” asked Martin.

“Because of what I just said.”

“Regarding?”

Haseeb stopped sawing at the taco.

“Regarding death.”

Martin scraped roast pork into a small pile in the center of his tortilla. “They do it on an Indian reservation that straddles the border between New York and Canada.  It’s kind’ve a jurisdictional blind spot.  They can do whatever they want.”

“Hey, look at me,” Haseeb said, his eyes growing small.  Martin looked.  “You’re not seriously thinking about doing this, right?”

“Beeb, in 1982 some Georgia housewife single handedly lifted a Chevy Impala off her son, after it collapsed on him while he was changing a tire.  In 2006, some pudgy middle aged guy pulled a Chevy Camaro off some kid after a car crash.  And that same year, some Canadian hockey Mom tackled a polar bear that had cornered her kids, and fought the thing off.  Know what all that means?”

“Stay away from Chevys?”

“No, it means that people can do spectacular things, unimaginable things, if they’re committed enough.”

“Thirty two feet per second squared is still thirty two feet per second squared, Marty.  No matter how committed you are.  Physics doesn’t respect that mind over matter bullshit.”

Martin folded his taco into a trowel shape and scooped up all of the chilies on his plate.  He bit and chewed in answer, his eyes on Haseeb’s, his mouth an acid bath.

******

“I”ll take the lead once we’re up there, but first, a few basics before we suit up,” Tom said.  Phoebe squinted into the morning sun and tugged at the seat of her loose, yellow jumpsuit.  “Pop up on the table please - it’s Phoebe, right?”

“Right.”

Not Edie?  Jan in the front office wasn’t totally sure.”

“It’s Phoebe.”

“That’s pretty.  It’s Greek for ‘fire’ or something, right?”

“Right.”

“My family’s Greek, too.  Not too many of us in New York state, unfortunately.  Bit out-numbered by our Italian neighbors.” Tom smiled, white teeth splitting his tanned face, pale blue eyes cool against swarthy cheeks.  He patted a big hand on the picnic table.  “Up here, please.  Belly down, arms and legs straight out.  Like you’re Superman.”

Phoebe climbed onto the table and lay down, resting her chin against the rough wood.

“My parents are German-English, not Greek,” she said. “Our last name is Throne.”

“Huh - that’s a surprise.  You look Greek.  Except for those big green eyes, maybe.  Or maybe something else more, um, exotic.  I wouldn’t have guessed German-English.”

“Adopted,” she replied, immediately regretting it.  “I was found at a church called Saint Phoebe’s.”  She couldn’t stop herself from talking, and blamed Tom.   He had a warm ease to him.  Perhaps because he dealt with skittish, adrenaline-drenched people all day.  His voice was soothing and his movements slow and deliberate, his large, sun-kissed hands steady.

She thought she should feel foolish, having this awkward conversation with a stranger while stretched prone on a picnic table in a yellow jumpsuit, but she didn’t.  She glanced over at Lana, sitting on the hood of her car with a paper coffee cup in her hand, clutching her wool cardigan close despite the warm morning sun.  Lana had been a wreck for the three hour drive north from New York City, and was still too nervous to leave the parking lot.

“Yeah,” Phoebe continued, because she couldn’t think of anything real to say.

“Now, to fly forward,” Tom said, standing over her, “we straighten our legs, and sweep our arms back.  Think fighter jet.”

She did it.

“Perfect.  That reduces the wind drag at the front of our bodies, increases it on the legs, and the difference in drag propels us forward.   To fly backwards we invert the relationship - straighten the arms and bend the legs at the knees.”  He touched a warm hand to the back of her calf.  “Think of that famous photo in Times Square with the nurse kissing the soldier, and she’s kicking one leg up.  Only do it with both - perfect.”

He made her repeat the movements a handful of times, then showed her how to bank left and right by bending her arms and twisting her body.

“Perfect again. You’re a natural.  You can hop off now.”

He helped her down, her small hand disappearing in his.  He smelled of hay and a light, clean sweat.

“So, what now?” she asked, squinting up at him, the bright spring sun shadowing his face. 

“We strap into the tandem rig, and then we fly.”  He headed off towards the equipment room, motioning for her to follow.  Phoebe looked over at the parking lot, and lifted her palms to ask Lana if she was coming.  Lana shouted something indecipherable, waving her hands in front of her ‘no’.  She caught herself and swore as coffee escaped from her cup onto her dress.

Phoebe followed after Tom to suit up.

******

“God, I thought that was Andrea at the bar,” Haseeb shouted over the music, dropping into the seat opposite Martin. He pushed a Scotch and soda across the table.  “Is she still in the city, even?”

“I think she’s in Dubai,” Martin shouted back.

“Christ.  What was the problem there, again? She seemed perfect.  Nice, pretty, and sane for a change. Not another Marty drama queen.  And how long did the lovely Andrea last? Four months?”

“She was nice. She is nice.  We just didn’t sync up.”

Haseeb sucked at his mojito, eyes rolling.  “Yet another failed sync!” he shouted.

The floor of the Hudson Hotel Bar was up-lit by halogen lights mounted under glass floor panels.  They cast a pale, hospital light on the dancing bodies.

“It means there was no fire,” Martin replied. 

Haseeb shook his head, unconvinced, his lips searching for the straw.  Despite the cold, hollow feeling in his belly, Martin nodded his head a little in time to the empty music.  A few after-workers like them were hanging on, but the hour was getting late and the serious night crawlers had begun to arrive.  Short dresses with clutch purses streamed past them, their straightened hair tucked behind shell-like ears.  They eyed the distressed cotton v-necks that stood at the edge of the dance floor, limited edition high-tops or long-toed leathers on their feet. 

“Whoa,” Haseeb perked up, twisting back to Martin. “That girl totally just checked you out. See it?”

He had.  Martin liked it when Haseeb noticed girls checking him out.  He gulped his Scotch and soda, and watched the v-necks circle the short dresses.  The two tribes sometimes leaned in towards each other, looking for openings.  Or sometimes one conspicuously ignored the other, laughing too loudly and raising glasses to advertise what wonderful times they were having.  The cold feeling in Martin’s stomach rolled over, grew heavier.

He had met Andrea under pale blue lights in a bar like this, and their first two months together had been a rolling forest fire.  Afternoons in bed.  Evenings clutching hands as they walked along the Brooklyn Heights promenade, downtown Manhattan glittering across the river like black crystal piled high on a banquet table.  Long nights in bed, folding into each other over and over again. 

And then, over the course of a few weeks, it had all gone cold.  She had seemed so content with it all, with them together, and his sense of striving and reaching for something had disappeared.   It was replaced with a feeling like clocking in.  Just marking time until it was polite to ask her to leave.

“Let’s go,” he said, throwing back the last of his drink and smacking the heavy tumbler down on the table.

Haseeb raised his half-full mojito in protest.

“Drink that, let’s go,” Martin repeated. “This place sucks.”

“Don’t you want that girl’s number?” Haseeb hefted his glass in her direction.  She lifted arms over her head when she saw Martin look over at her, twining her wrists together and dipping on softened knees.  An invitation to play.

“Let’s go,” Martin said again.  “This place is bullshit.”

“This place is great,” Haseeb shouted back.  “Look at that girl.  Look at her friend!  Go get her number, and ask for her friend’s too. Don’t be so selfish, Marty. Think of your wingman!

“You don’t want her friend’s number.  This room is full of phonies and posers, Beeb.  Let’s go!”

Martin stood too quickly, and a rush of blood flooded his head, the room growing brighter.  The girl angled out from her friends, opening a path for him into the press of bodies.  Long legs shining against the glowing floor. 

Martin made for the door, shouldering his way through the crowd.  Ignoring offended grunts and toes caught beneath his heels, he homed on the exit.  Haseeb swore behind him, trying to keep, hurrying to finish his drink. 

“What’s wrong with her?” Haseeb called over Martin’s shoulder, elbowing through the press.

“Saving myself for my birthday,” Martin replied, unsure if Haseeb could hear him. 

From the corner of his eye Martin saw the girl rejoin the press of her friends.  Turning from him, the invitation fading, then gone.

******

“I can’t believe you went through with it,” Lana said, peeking over the cubicle divider. “Were you just terrified?

“It really wasn’t that bad,” Phoebe answered, sending off a reply to one email and opening another.  “Tom did pretty much everything.”

“Wow, Tom.  He was really, really cute. Rugged.” Lana said it as if describing a dessert.  “How was it, having him strapped to your back while you jumped.  Exciting, right?  He looked very confident.”

When Tom had first opened the jump door, the rush of the wind against Phoebe’s body had felt like an invasion.  He had given the signal, they’d checked the harness one last time and then bobbed up, down, and out in unison.  The wind had gone from bully to lover in an instant.  The horizon, which had seemed like the edge of a green wall of death from inside the plane, became something that soared alongside her on a parallel flight path.  It had felt weightless and right, a feeling like butterflies.  Almost.

“When you’re looking out of the open door at the fields and houses and everything, it’s pretty terrifying,” Phoebe replied.  “But once you leave the plane it’s, uh.  It’s peaceful.  Really peaceful.”

“Did you give the delicious Tom your number?”

“No.”

“But he asked, right?”

“He did.  He was sweet about it.”

“But you didn’t give it to him?  Not smart enough for you?”

“I think he’s an engineer.”

“Wow.  Wow.  But still, not even moths?”

Phoebe felt Lana’s smile behind her, and smashed the space bar repeatedly to begin the next paragraph. 

“I’m really sorry Lana, but I have to get these emails off before noon.”

Lana slid back behind the divider and began meekly tapping at her own work.

Tom had felt like a very near thing, but there was still a sense of the mundane about him.  Concrete, mortal Tom.  He wasn’t quite it.

Phoebe pulled up the website for the other jump operator.  They were much further upstate, nestled against the Canadian border.  Far to the north of Tom, and beyond the reach of his careful blue eyes.

******

Martin sat at his computer in the second bedroom that he had converted into a home office, Saturday night sounds drifting up to him from the street below.  He tossed back the last of his Scotch and soda, and pulled up the website.   He confirmed the date and time for his present to himself.   A  pop-up questionnaire appeared, requesting his vital statistics for a profile they would post in their files.  He punched in his age and height, weight and hair color.  There was no request for a photo, only a blank field for a short personal statement.

He watched the cursor blink in the empty space for a long time, the Scotch and soda humming through him.  He tried a few quotes from books, movies, song lyrics, but all of them felt like stolen goods.

“So, are you there?” he typed at last.

*******

Phoebe’s Sunday paper lay unopened on her breakfast table, the outside world straining against a green rubber band.  She scanned the front page above the fold but found nothing encouraging, so she opened her laptop to check the news aggregator sites.  There was nothing uplifting in any of those either, so she ran a search. 

In 1971, a seventeen year old girl woke up after a plane crash in the Peruvian rainforest to find herself blinded in one eye.  She walked for nine days in a mini skirt and sandals to find civilization.  In 1995, a bull hippo attacked a Zimbabwean man canoeing down the Zambezi River.  The hippo swallowed his head, dragged him under the water and bit off his arm, but the man still made it out of the river. 

Phoebe sipped her green tea and pulled up the website.  With her practice run out of the way, she was sure.  She entered her personal information and credit card number, then checked for available dates.  She realized that her birthday was blinking at her in the appointment calendar, and she clicked to open it.  A pop-up window blossomed on the screen with a physical description and a question.  

Someone was looking for her.

*******

Martin drove the rental out of the garage under a navy blue morning sky, the sun still sleeping along with all of Saturday night’s drunkards.  He had a playlist queued up for the seven hour drive north, but couldn’t bring himself to break the silence.  His birthday morning was still a newborn thing, yet to open its eyes, and turning on music felt irreverent.

He shared George Washington Bridge with a few commercial trucks, and an occasional station wagon with mountain bikes strapped to its roof.  The heater hummed along, filling the time as he pulled away from the city’s cold, deserted morning edition of itself.

******

Phoebe pulled her car out of the basement lot and into the predawn stillness.  She waited a long time for the red light to change at the end of her block, refusing to drive through it even though there was no one around to catch her.  She nosed through empty streets and onto the West Side Highway, rechecking the directions on her phone even though she had memorized them the night before. 

She realized she was half singing a birthday song to herself.  The only words she knew were ‘it’s my birthday too,’ which she sang into the half remembered melody whenever it felt right. 

She checked the GPS on her phone. Seven hours to go.  She pressed the gas pedal down a little further, scanning the empty road in her rearview mirror.

“It’s my birthday too.”

******

“Is he coming at all?” Martin asked the boy.

“Doubt it, man.  Hasn’t shown up yet.” The teenager pinched his nose as if about to sneeze, relaxed as it passed, then exploded as the sneeze returned, doubling over and bracing his arms against thin thighs in blue jeans.

“You OK?” Martin asked.

“Nah, man.  Fuckin allergies.”

“Sucks this time of year, huh? All the pollen.”

“Don’t get me fuckin started, man.” The boy’s voice was too old for his long, thin body, all elbows and adam’s apple. 

“I’ll try him again,” Martin said, hitting redial on his phone.  To his surprise it was picked up on the first ring.

“Yup?”

“Hey, it’s Martin.  I’m here.”

Right!  Right.  Mr. Sera-Fick?”

“That’s me.  Are you on your way?”  There were no travel sounds at the other end.

“I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to make it this morning, Mr. Sera-Fick - unexpected emergency with one of my other businesses.  Did you meet up with Little Crow OK?”

“I’m here with a young man named Ronnie, he met me at the compound gates.” Martin covered the phone. “Are you Little Crow?” he asked.  Ronnie waggled his head in a  ‘sure, why not.’

“OK, yeah,” Martin replied.  “I’m with him now.”

“Then you’re in great hands.  Mr. Little Crow is my executory officer for this adventure experience, he can show you to the site.  Your counterpart is standing by for confirmation that you’re in place, and Mr. Little Crow knows what to do.  Just one reminder - I have a customer survey on my webpage.  At the end of the day, if you could click on the ‘How did we do?” tab and let us know how it went, that would be fantastic.  OK? I’m afraid I have to pick up this next call, Mr. Sera-Fick, so I wish you good luck, and a long life filled with a lotta love.”

The phone clicked off.

“Not coming, right?” Ronnie said, his voice tired. Martin shook his head.  “Some emergency?”

“Right.”

“Like I said - hasn’t shown up yet.  It’s this way.” Ronnie headed off around the corner of a single story wooden house, his hands in his pockets and his unlaced work boots threatening to leave his feet with each step.  Martin jogged after him, not wanting to be mistaken for an intruder in the dusty compound, even though Ronnie seemed to be the only one around.

Martin rounded the house to find Ronnie striding towards a field of yellow, waving grass about four feet tall.  The field was a perfect square, each edge the length of a football field.  The thin, early evening sunlight sent shadows across it in waves, as a cool spring breeze rippled through the stalks.

“What’s that?”

Ronnie pinched his nose again, fighting back a sneeze, his free hand clenched in an angry fist.

“That’s fuckin rye, my friend,” he said when he could speak again.

“Why is there only one field of it?”

“This is all the owner needs.”

“For what?”

“Artisinal whiskey.  And the yellow.”

“What?”

He pointed his chin at the field.  “That’s the drop spot.”

“What is?”

“The rye field, man.  Look around you - it’s the only piece of yellow for miles.  They can’t miss it.”

“The whole field is the drop zone?”

Ronnie looked at him sideways.  “You know how this works, right?”

Martin nodded.

“You sure you want to do it?  Because I only have a cell phone here, no short wave.  Once I give them the go ahead and they’re up, I can’t call them off.  You understand?”

Martin nodded again. 

“OK, man.” Ronnie dug his phone out of his back pocket. Pointed to the rye field with it. “Take your spot.”

Martin waded into the rye, chest deep in thick blades of yellow grass, stalks snapping beneath his feet.  His heart thudded as he pushed towards the center of the field, the early evening sun not strong enough to warm him.  He shivered, a small bud of panic in his chest, ready to unfurl.  He looked up at his clear, blue, birthday evening sky, his limbs feeling light and insubstantial.  Searching.

******

The roar of the engine filled the hollow fuselage.  Phoebe crouched against the wall across from the closed jump door, staring at the red light which stared back at her.  The twin propellors shook the plane as it ascended in a steep, corkscrew climb.

The jump master pressed his hand to his earpiece, listening.  “We’ll be crossing back over the U.S. border in about a minute,” he shouted over the din.  “After the light goes amber, you’ll only have about thirty seconds before it goes green.  So if you’re going, you’ve got to get ready fast.  The pilot’ll take us down as low as he can, then right before it’s time, he’ll climb hard to take some of the edge off the forward momentum.  And remember - you don’t have to go at all if you don’t want to.  Understand?”

Phoebe nodded and took a deep breath, looking away to avoid the doubt in his eyes.  He pressed his hand to his ear again, listening, then duck-walked across the floor of the plane and unlocked the jump door.  He slid it up over his head in one smooth motion, and the sky came rushing in.  The loose fabric in the arms and legs of her jumpsuit crackled in the wind, and the low evening sun poured into her eyes.  The birthday song looped in her head, impossible to hear now over the rushing wind and the droning engines, but she felt it coiling in her mind.

The light went amber, and the jump master tapped her on the shoulder, pointed to make sure she had seen it.  The plane angled down and they began shedding altitude.

She had thought about the moment before it arrived, but never truly pictured it.  Her hands didn’t shake as she removed the parachute harness, opening the fasteners and releasing the webbing from around each thigh, then each shoulder.  She shucked the weight of the canopy off her back, her body free and light.  She felt the empty spaces open in her belly, chest and limbs, and the butterflies rushing in to fill her.  She gripped the edge of the door, the wind pushing against her.

She thought of the man on the ground.  Someone ready to stake everything on this.  On her.  Waiting for her with a commitment that refused to be qualified.  The nose of the plane tipped up towards the sky, and she felt the momentum press her into the floor as it climbed hard. 

The light went green. Up, down, out.

******

Martin heard the plane before he saw it.  A small crucifix of wings and fuselage, crawling into the sky on a mosquito’s drone.  Much lower than a passenger jet, higher than a crop duster.

The panic bud began to unfurl, his body shivering violently in the cold.  For a moment he second-guessed his decision not to prepare, not to practice, but he pushed down the thoughts.  Physics were all beside the point now.  This was a moment separated from the rest of time by will and commitment. 

He squinted into the sun, bulling through the rye to line himself up with the oncoming plane, it’s nose angling downward in a near-dive that ate away the altitude.  It leveled out a few miles from the field, then angled violently upward, climbing towards the sun.

He saw her leave the plane.  A small figure breaking from the silhouette of the aircraft, no canopy on her back.  Her arms and legs swept back for flight in the shape of a Christmas tree angel.  Arrowing towards him.

Martin adjusted his position until he felt, he knew, that his placement was perfect.  Then he set one leg in front of the other, bracing, and opened his arms to catch her, his cold body lighting on fire at last in the midst of the waving, yellow rye.

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Jason Lees

JASON LEES was born in New Zealand and lives in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.